Sunday, January 8, 2012

1-7-12 Happy 2012 As We Await Winter's Arrival

I had planned a quiet Christmas without a tree or a big meal. My oldest daughter, Julia, was working both days of the weekend and Lizzie was planning to stay in Tahoe, CA, where she was praying for snow. She called Thursday evening saying that there "wasn't a single flake of snow in the Sierras" and she was homesick and wanted to come "home for the holidays." Friday morning (12-23-11) she called to say she was driving and was going to try and get home by mid-Christmas day. I had wanted to hike at least one day of the weekend, preferably up North and I was going to choose the day based on which had best weather. With Liz on her way I was left me with only Saturday to hike. I was thinking: Ammonoosuc Ravine to Lakes of the Clouds and on to the summit. I set the alarm for 5 a.m.....

The view north from the summit Christmas Eve morning.

But in the morning I checked the Obs' weather and at 5:30 am the stats read: 0.5 degrees (F), wind 34.4 mph with gusts up to 86.4 mph and windchill of -26.5 degrees (F)(below zero). One good thing was the visibility was 120 miles. The day's forecast posted by Observer Ryan Knap didn't sound all that enticing and with Liz on her way (my excuse) I had to buy and decorate a Christmas tree and food for Christmas dinner. Liz explicitly asked for Tamales, a Christmas tradition, from a local Mexican restaurant and I'd have to buy them before 3 pm Christmas eve.

It was probably a good decision to stay home as by 4:30 pm the weather at the summit had not changed much. It was a gorgeous day but the windchill had stayed around -27 degrees below zero (F) as the air temperature dropped and the wind picked up a bit.

I'm including this shot from the Obs' North camcorder from 1-7-12 just to show the contrast in snow depth from two weeks ago. There's a little more snow but there's still not very much anywhere in the north country as of 1-8-12. It's a cool photo.

So for Christmas, when we finally celebrated on Monday, I got my best, best present of all in having both my daughters at home and together for the first time in what felt like ages. Liz had pulled into the driveway a few minutes after midnight Christmas night after a 3-day drive from Tahoe via Colorado, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc.

Another present I received worth mentioning is this history of the early British expeditions to Mt. Everest which is huge in its coverage as you can see by the title. It's astonishing in several ways. It's very well written and exhaustive in detail. It creates the sensation of actually "being there". It covers the 1921, 1922 and 1924 British expeditions to Everest particularly the long, desperate period with the 1921 expedition, made up of mostly military personnel, when they were trying to find a route to the summit from the north side of the mountain. Davis' account is epic and, for mountain and Everest buffs, it fills an enormous gap in the details about the arduous exploration and mapping in Tibet and northern Nepal that was necessary just to get to the base of the mountain. It paints extraordinarily detailed portraits of the members of each expedition and particularly of the enigmatic & charismatic George Mallory.

The book is also noteworthy for its attention to natural history particularly in the regions of Tibet traversed by members of the expedition which included the high plateau as well as the foothills up to 21,000 feet. The author is a well known botanist and natural historian and writes about these things well. His descriptions are astonishing, really, as are the images created of the people along the routes they explored. He obviously did a lot of research including retracing all of Mallory's steps. As you can tell, I'm recommending the book to one and all.

Over the holiday I also read The Challenge of K2; A History of the Savage Mountain by Richard Sale which is somewhat redundant in its recounting of the major expeditions. It was frustrating for me because it drags the reader through the controversy that flared up around the successful 1954 Italian expedition involving climbers Lino Lacidelli and Achille Companoni, who were the first to summit K2 in 1954, and the treatment of team member Walter Bonatti just before and during the last hours of the summit attempt. Like the French Annapurna expedition in 1950 that was rife with political intrigues, nationalistic and otherwise, the Italian K2 organization also had its share. The competition, favoritism, political alliances etc were mainstays of almost all of the larger expeditions of the 1920s, 30s up through the 1960s. Wade Davis' recounting of the early Everest expeditions details exactly the same situation that occurred on K2 in 1954 occurring in the 1922 and 1924 Everest expedition that involved Mallory. The large scale expeditions were similar to military exercises in the time of war with hierarchies and leadership stretching back to national capitols and the involvement of hundreds of people most of whom had never seen a mountain much less climbed one, and where failure was not an option.

Lino Lacidelli, on the left, with Loofa, in their Yin-Yang pose, slept through the holidays.

I know this is a long way from the White Mountains and natural history but while shopping for food Christmas eve I ran into Tracy Hightower, a well known valley farmer who, with her husband and business partner, John Reid, operated BioShelters, Inc. in Sunderland, MA, for several decades. On about an acre of land they were able to produce thousand of pounds of fish every year along with other types of food grown hydroponically. There are myriad details about the sustainable aspects of their operation, but it was forced to close when the land owner wanted a dramatic increase in the price of their lease; an all too familiar story. Now the buildings are unused, empty and falling down so it's a sad story as well, but it was refreshing to talk to her. In the past I, too, farmed here in the valley and helped start a valley-wide organization called CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) that nurtured a community-wide dialog on farming, farming practices, food, food safety, environmental issues linked with farming, aesthetics as in open space, etc., and that sought innovative ways to increase food production. CISA, Tracy noted, has evolved into a marketing organization and she quipped that "selling the food is easy. Growing it's the hard part," as she talked about the continuing need to help farmers find new ways to grow more food annually and make more money. In the photo above a barn on Michael Docter's farm in Hadley, MA, is covered with solar panels. He sells "food shares" directly to families (consumers) for fresh produce, an enterprise called Community Supported Agriculture or CSAs. Michael, a famously innovative farmer, has also been innovative in the use of his barn roof so that families receive food AND electricity. Michael was the farmer-manager of the Western Mass. Food Bank Farm for many years and is one of the premier organic farmers in the Valley.

His land is wintering, but one thing Tracy and I talked about was getting some funding for studying ways to extend the growing season in those years when the winter isn't as mild as this one has been so far. There is a huge demand here, in the Connecticut River valley, for more fresh, local, organic food by large markets like Whole Foods, Super Stop and Shop, etc. Several local farmers have begun exploring ways to extend the growing season at both ends of the growing season. We talked excitedly about organizing a Farmer-to Farmer meeting this winter to bring in farmers from Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island to talk about ways to extend the growing season and strategies for what is called "vertical agriculture", similar to permaculture, where multiple crops are grown in "stories", one above the other, to maximize space.

This is one of local dairy farmer Gordy William's hay field with the east end of the Holyoke Range in the background. Yesterday the temps were in the low 50s here. It was a stunning day. The light was gorgeous and it felt and smelled like spring. Today it was in the low 30s but the light, as in this photo, and the colors were wonderful. It was windy on top of Mt. Skinner. When I can't get up to the Whites I can run-hike many combinations of trails along this ridge to get a good workout.

The light at this particular place on the ridge just
below the top of Mt. Skinner is always striking.

One thing I've been thinking about doing for a while and am now planning for the coming summer is a pretty long, 2 or 3 day bushwhack-traverse (completely off trail except trail crossings) of the Pemmigewaset Wilderness starting at the lower southwest corner, perhaps at the bottom of Mt. Flume, and then heading diagonally northeast over Franconia Ridge, down to Lincoln Brook, up over Owls Head, down to Franconia Brook, up the west side of Guyot, down into and across Zealand Valley, over the Willey Range, and out to Rt. 302 above Crawford Notch. It sounds pretty crazy doesn't it?

Winter trees waiting for winter (like the rest of us).

At any rate it's good incentive to get in really great shape again which is another reason I'm fortunate to have the Holyoke Range even though it only offers a small uphill gain. I used to train for running the mile by doing speed work on the track. I would run a 60 second 440 (quarter of a mile) rest for 60 seconds and then run another one, and another, etc., 16-20 times, to build core strength as well as speed. On Mt. Skinner there's one trail that has several steep sections but they are only 75 to 100 yards long. I run up them as fast as I can, jog back down, run up, etc. Bodie Miller, the Olympic skier from Franconia, NH, (I heard) use to fill a wheel barrow with big rocks, and then push it up one of the ski trails at Cannon Mt. as fast as he could go. That sounds like a good workout for the hut traverse. By the way, in Wade Davis' Everest book there's mention of traverse in the English Lake District that's 57 miles long with 23,000 feet in elevation that one of the 1922 Everest expedition members completed in 1905 in 22 h: 30 m. It sounds familiar.

Late Sunday afternoon hikers on Mt. Skinner.

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